The little-noticed four-page report reached Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith in mid-August. It was mostly charts and numbers, its importance obscured by the distractions of summer vacation and concerns about the system's continued failure to reach Virginia's achievement test targets.
News reports had noted that only three of Arlington's 30 schools had met the state requirements on the new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests, but the report by Kathleen Wills, Smith's chief adviser on testing, revealed another, more positive development. Not only had most schools improved on most of the tests, but the gap between white and minority scores had closed in many cases.
In 19 of the 26 tests, the difference between black and white scores had narrowed, in most instances while both groups improved. The passing rate for third-grade black children jumped from 34 to 52 percent, while third-grade white children improved from 84 to 88 percent, with the gap narrowing from 50 to 36 percentage points. The progress of Hispanic students was less impressive, but the white-Hispanic gap was reduced in 14 of the tests.
It was the sort of improvement Smith had been demanding since he arrived from Texas in 1997, and it set a vital benchmark, school officials said. Improving both white and minority achievement while closing the gap between them will be a central focus for the coming year, they said.
Arlington's efforts to help disadvantaged students have drawn national attention. It has joined 13 other school districts to form the Minority Student Achievement Network. Arlington school staff will be traveling to other districts this year and receiving visitors from all over the country as part of the effort to identify the best ways to promote learning for all students regardless of background.
"I think it's wonderful," said Howard Kallem, last year's president of the County Council of PTAs. "That is just the kind of stuff that a school district should be working for."
Several initiatives are tied to the ethnic achievement gap. Arlington this year launches a new system for evaluating teachers designed to combine the assessment process with experiments in improving learning. For the first time in five years, the School Board will be considering school boundary changes. Many schools are being extensively remodeled, the board is considering a new strategic plan for the entire system and a federal appeals court ruling on encouraging minority enrollment at Arlington Traditional School is expected.
"Finding ways that the community and the schools can better support each other is one of my highest priorities," said the board's new chairman, Libby Garvey. "We plan to have several community forums during the year that will be designed collaboratively by parents, teachers, staff and community members and work with existing organizations."
Board member Elaine S. Furlow said she hopes to focus on the county's four high schools. "I want to make high school a substantially better experience for each kid, academically as well as personally."
She praised a program at Yorktown High that identified a few dozen students, many of them minorities, who had picked courses that appeared to be too easy for them. Administrators persuaded most of them to select a more demanding program, with the help of both teachers and other students who volunteered to be mentors.
Mentoring work also will be important in the professional development plan that Kathleen F. Grove, assistant superintendent for instruction, and Betty Hobbs, assistant superintendent for personnel, have developed with the help of the Arlington Education Association, the teachers organization.
The new plan for evaluating teachers starts with the idea that most teachers should decide for themselves how they will be assessed. The old system of a principal observing a teacher and then marking her each year as "successful," "needs improvement" or "unsuccessful" has been scrapped. Instead, most teachers will identify areas where they would like to improve and, often in cooperation with other teachers, devise plans for making changes in the way they teach.
"It does recognize that teachers are professionals and should take control of their growth," said Marjorie McCreery, executive director of the Arlington Education Association.
Administrators will work with the teachers on their plans. At the end of the year, each principal will evaluate in a written statement--rather than just checking boxes on a form--how well each teacher met the goals she set for herself. If a principal decides a teacher's work is unsatisfactory, the principal may suspend the teacher's right to choose a project for the year and direct the teacher to work on improving in areas where the principal thinks there is a deficiency.
"It is really a wonderful package," Hobbs said. "I would love to have taught under such a system."
Newly arrived probationary teachers will work with mentor teachers to improve their skills. McCreery said she complained to Smith about the lack of extra time mentor teachers have for this, but Hobbs said she thought there were ways to keep the burden to a minimum. A mentor teacher might invite a new teacher to join her so that they can work on their lesson plans at the same time, Hobbs said, the mentoring becoming a natural part of their daily routine.
By November, the school district also may be adjusting to an unfamiliar presence, a non-Democrat on the school board. Since the school board became an elected body in 1994, only Democratic candidates endorsed by the nonpartisan group Arlingtonians for a Better County (ABC) have won. But this year an independent candidate, David M. Foster, won the ABC endorsement and is in a close race with the Democratic-endorsed candidate Sharon Davis.
In several votes this year on issues such as closing a rifle range at Yorktown High or allowing Arlington students to apply to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the five Democrats on the board were divided. School officials say they are not certain if the addition of Foster, who has strong support from many Arlington Republicans, would affect the way the system pursues its goal of raising achievement for all.